On the evening of October 21, 1967, a “ragtag” group of hippies, counterculture enthusiasts, artists and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators descended upon the Pentagon to perform a ritual exorcism with the goal of levitating the building 3 feet above the ground. While no one claims to have seen the Pentagon rise, the event became a unique example of using spiritual rituals toward political ends in the public eye and cultural consciousness.
I first learned of this ritual exorcism during a workshop facilitated by activist and filmmaker Tourmaline, who came to Brown University in March of 2015 to talk with student activists engaged in a struggle to get our university to divest financially and ideologically from the prison-industrial complex.
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At the time, members of our activist group would frequently listen to a recording of Assata Shakur’s “urgent call to action,” we need a r/evolution, on repeat:
we need a r/evolution of the mind. we need a r/evolution of the heart. we need a r/evolution of the spirit. the power of the people is stronger than any weapon. a people’s r/evolution can’t be stopped. we need to be weapons of mass construction. weapons of mass love. it’s not enough just to change the system. we need to change ourselves.
In pushing our university to divest from the prison-industrial complex, we were also urging it to reinvest in the community it had stolen from to create itself. We would play the recording as an invocation at our teach-ins and workshops as we struggled with questions, such as: Is it possible for universities to exist as non-oppressive entities? How would a world without prisons look and feel? What do words like “justice” and “safety” really mean in practice?
Like the exorcists at the Pentagon in 1967, we, too, were a ragtag group of bandits, disenchanted by the makings of the world around us and longing for a different kind of revolution to move us past bloodshed and violence and suffering without creating more of the same.
Could the use of spiritual rituals toward political ends — rituals like the attempted levitation of the Pentagon — serve some role in helping us reimagine the very foundations of change?
Becoming committed to prison abolition — which imagines the possibilities of a world without prisons, thus, a world free of the logics and metrics of exploited labor, punitive retribution and disposability — has led me to see spirituality as a political imperative. By contemplating the notion of a world without prisons, we were posing deeply spiritual and moral inquiries into the very nature of humanity. What would be the makings of a world that did not operate on the principles of punishment, exile and exclusion? How would that be complicated by our own flawed humanity? And, in what ways would that demand deep transformations as individuals and communities?
To face questions such as these, we must look to things we have been taught to believe are impossible as a source of hope, renewal and a possible path forward.
Rethinking Political Revolution
“this is the 21st century and we need to redefine r/evolution. this planet needs a people’s r/evolution. a humanist r/evolution. r/evolution is not about bloodshed or about going to the mountains and fighting. we will fight if we are forced to but the fundamental goal of r/evolution must be peace.” — Assata Shakur
The modern idea of political revolution was cemented after the establishment of slavery, colonization and a systematic racial hierarchy of white supremacy. As a result, the American, French and Haitian revolutions all perpetuated practices of social exclusion. For example, in the U.S., white soon-to-be Americans fought for their freedom from monarchy rule while continuing to enslave Africans and murder Indigenous populations. In France, masses of white peasantry fought for their freedom against the Empire without acknowledging their complicity in slavery throughout the French colonies. In Haiti, enslaved Africans fought for their freedom from colonial rule while the key figure of that struggle, Toussaint L’Ouverture, reaffirmed hierarchical structures based in colorism and economic inequality and maintained an intimate obsession with whiteness.
This dominant idea of revolution, in and of itself, rests on a belief in the idea of the “Republic” as the thing that will save us, but in practice such a Republic exists to determine who qualifies for the protections and privileges of citizenship, and who doesn’t. Using a revolution to found a Republic is therefore tantamount to what feminist scholar Audre Lorde warned us against in her pivotal work, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House“:
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those … who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
For this reason, it seems to me that the modern idea of revolution — which is inextricably tangled up with the systems that rationalized the oppression of specific groups — will never be enough to enable genuine change.
Using Lorde’s framing of “the master’s tools” to conceptualize the shortcomings of modernity’s ideals of revolution led me back to Shakur’s vision of a remaking of the word: a r/evolution of the mind, a r/evolution of the heart, a r/evolution of the spirit.
A R/Evolution of the Spirit
Spirituality, at its core, is a sense of connection with something beyond oneself and the materiality of the physical world. It realigns one’s sense of self with sentiments that are more holy than tangible, more infinite than rigid.
Spiritual discourses are in deep need of the r/evolution that Shakur described. The European Christian world has long used ideas of spiritual hierarchy as justifications for racialized colonization and enslavement. The notion of Native peoples throughout North and South America, the Caribbean and Africa as “savages,” in other words, less than civilized and less than citizens, was built on the notions of their Indigenous spiritualities as such.
It is important to then draw a distinction between pre-modern spirituality and modern organized religion. Religions are institutions whereas spiritualities are more expansive ways of seeing, understanding and thus molding our senses of self in relation to our senses of the world around us, independent of the existence of brick and mortar establishments.
It is much easier to break people’s bodies and hope after having already broken their connections to the ways they fundamentally understand themselves and their worlds by means of spiritual degradation. The architects of slavery and colonization understood this, so it is no coincidence that throughout history, both the imposition of chattel slavery and the theft of Native lands and resources have been accompanied by the forced conversion of Black and Indigenous peoples. The systematic marginalization of non-Christian spiritualities was perhaps the first means of establishing marginal existences for groups whose ways of understanding the world ran counter to logics of white supremacy. However, spirituality has always provided the space for resistance.
In Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjure Tradition, scholar Yvonne Chireau surveys how enslaved Africans used Indigenous African spiritual forms of knowledge to subvert the plantation state. In recounting the ways enslaved Africans held on to these spiritual traditions in the face of violent conversion tactics to ensure their cooperation within a system of labor subordination, she maps how spiritual colonization and oppression were central to imposing the various means of political, social, cultural and economic oppression. Most importantly, Chireau unveils how lineages of African American spiritual resistance, and the preservation and merging of indigenous African spiritualities within the imposition of compulsory Christianity, intimidated the architects of the plantation state. By utilizing and adapting spiritual frameworks to which white plantation owners had no conceptual access as resources for resistance, enslaved Black communities “chip[ped] away at the foundations of slaveholders’ authority” and turned to the supernatural realm as “alternative possibilities for empowerment.”
Indigenous spiritual perspectives have, by and large, existed in opposition to the binary codes imposed by a white supremacist logic in historically embracing more fluid views of gender, labor and knowledge.
Many of the systems and institutions under which we live are spiritually deprived. Capitalism operates from a framework that assumes there is simply not enough to go around — that it is impossible for everyone to have all they need, even though some people possess unthinkable amounts of wealth. Borders and walls and other means of xenophobia emerge from the denial of personhood to those deemed as “others.” In other words, these frameworks actively oppose spiritual understandings, such as gratitude, unconditional love and mutual aid. The boundaries of our country and the globalization of markets unfolded from a mindset of racial entitlement and the “necessary” privatization of things that cannot belong to any one person or persons.
How can spirituality help us resist these forces, and what do I mean by “spirituality” in this context? Ultimately, I am not calling anyone into any specific spiritual tradition, or even into any spiritual tradition at all. But I am insisting that we attend to an inescapable reality: We are all traumatized in varying degrees by the actions and ideals of the complex histories of this country, and we are in need of profound healing. At this critical moment in defining the path of history that is to come, recommitting ourselves to individual and collective healing, and a deeply spiritual journey might be the makings of the r/evolution we’ve all been waiting for. This commitment will not be neat and linear. It will not be a one-size-fits-all-mass-produced model of change. But it can serve as our initial way of looking beyond the master’s tool and outside of the master’s house to reimagine the very foundations of change within ourselves and within the world around us.
The past 500 years and counting have been marred by punishment, exile and exclusion. These historic and contemporary wounds create lineages of unbroken intergenerational trauma. And for me, remembering my ancestral spiritual practices was my first step in the direction of healing from the centuries of pain, anger and heartache from which I emerged. If we truly wish to change the worst aspects of this world, we must contemplate what that means for the collective as we put into practice what that demands of us as individuals. And perhaps the most important lesson we can take from the spiritual realm is a shift from a collective perspective of lack, hierarchy and isolation to one that centers wholeness, empathy and unconditional love. It is more important than ever that we redefine newfound currencies of trust, love and abundance rather than holding onto the antiquated currencies of lack, violence and fear that founded these catastrophes in the first place.
We Need to Change Ourselves
We can never truly remake the world, if we do not also remake ourselves. Everything is connected.
One of the reasons capitalism runs rogue is because people have not done the healing work to overcome their fears of scarcity. Our social media algorithms keep us entangled in echo chambers because people have not done the healing work to overcome their fears of things they cannot understand. Our planet grieves because people have not done the healing work to overcome the appeal of modern conveniences to protect the wellbeing of the environment and the livelihoods of others.
The spiritual is profoundly political.
I am not the only one who sees this. Now, we are seeing large segments of society, particularly millennials, return to spiritual consciousness and center personal healing in droves. Politically aware astrologers, like Chani Nicholas, Jessica Lanyadoo and Jessica Alexander, have massive social media followings and use astrology as a means of reflecting on and reckoning with harsh political realities. Young Black and Brown women and femmes are boldly and proudly taking up the monikers of “witches,” “brujas,” “conjurers,” “root women,” and “light workers.” We even have the creation of the world’s first Black Witch University, of which I was a student in the inaugural class, tying together the concepts of spiritual wellness, social activism and political freedom.
What we are seeing with this emergence of spiritual healing in the cultural mainstream is a generation willing to dream impossible dreams and blow open the boundaries and walls that systems of white supremacy, imperialism, colonization and the like have attempted to lay across the contours of our hope.
Returning to, reclaiming and reconnecting with pre-modern spiritualities can offer a complete reframing of the world in its entirety for marginalized communities. They work against the either/or thinking that has pigeonholed our current political aims by opening spaces of hope and possibility. They can show us the ways we have been deeply scarred by the intergenerational trauma that lives around and within us. They can help us to place our necessary healing front and center. And when we begin to heal ourselves, we resonate an energy that can open others in our families and communities to healing. And when we do this, we evolve, and the world around us begins to shift in profound and radical ways.
My ancestors understood the things they were taught to believe were impossible – from the idea that they could fly home to the belief that their descendants could live with more freedom than they did — as sources of hope and renewal and a path forward. Similarly, merging my spiritual reckonings with my political beliefs has opened me up to understanding the things I was once taught to believe were impossible – from the idea that we can fly over any police barricade to the belief that one day, we will all understand and treat water as a fundamental and inalienable human right — to be sources of hope and renewal and a path forward.
R/Evolution Is Love
“r/evolution means the end of exploitation. r/evolution means respecting people from other cultures. r/evolution is creative. r/evolution means treating your mate as a friend and an equal. r/evolution is sexy. r/evolution means respecting and learning from your children. r/evolution is beautiful. r/evolution means protecting the people. the plants. the animals. the air. the water. r/evolution means saving this planet. r/evolution is love.” — Assata Shakur
When I first heard Black thinkers like James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. offer the ideals of unconditional love as an antidote to sociopolitical wrongs, I was confused. I thought I could never understand such a perspective. I thought of these ideas as vestiges of times past and lost battles. As a student, back in those abolitionist organizing days, I used to resent James Baldwin. I didn’t understand what he meant when he wrote things like, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
I thought I could never love, especially unconditionally, the people whose ideas of the world led to my destruction. But I was only misinterpreting the very foundations of such calls. Love, in our collective understanding of its function, is something to be worked for. It just so happens to be the closest we’ll ever get to describing what universal oneness really means. Oneness, the cornerstone of humanity in spiritual teachings across the globe, is the practice of never losing your morality just because someone else has given up theirs.
Despite the resentment I hold in my heart for the people whose actions and ideas threaten the livelihoods of the communities I hold dear, I would still never do to them what they have done to me. I would never give away my humanity in the way their actions and ideas give theirs away. I do not love these folks on a personal level. I do not wish to be close to them or speak with them regularly, or care for them or give anything of myself to them, but I will not violate their bodies or lives. I will not carry the guilt that they must hold eternally. I would never wish to do to them what they have wished to do and have done to others. Of course, this is not to say we should not defend ourselves and our loved ones when our wellbeing is endangered. That is unconditional love. Unconditional love does not imply perfection or even reciprocity. But the spiritual sense of unconditional love does imply never losing the best parts of ourselves and our actions in retaliation against another’s rejection of their best parts. And that, I believe, is humanity at its finest. And that is what marginalized groups have always done in this country.
However, contrary to the teachings of some spiritual dogma, we are not simply “all one.” We might exist and come from a collective source of energy — the Big Bang which enabled life on this planet — but we all live and learn uniquely. And the fact of our differences, as Lorde notes in “The Master’s Tools,” should not have to be erased or ignored for humanity to be our driving force.
The universal journey, I believe, is one of confronting and transcending fears so that the things that once terrified you no longer have the power to destroy you. The US political system, from its inception, has depended upon logics of fear to maintain itself. Right now, outdated modes of existing — white supremacy, capitalism, and other politics of disposability and exploitation — and their human soldiers are pulling out the last straws, bringing out all the most terrifying things they can think of to hold us in place with fear. The current moment is defined by the rise of increasingly fascist tendencies across the globe; violent wars against migrants and refugees; and the continual disregard of defiant bodies, Black lives, Native lives, trans lives, and any other lives deemed to exist outside of and beyond the “acceptable.” The rich keep getting richer as the poor are more and more abandoned by our insufficient economies. Amid all this, as we come face to face with the greatest human-influenced environmental catastrophes this world has ever seen, the idea of maintaining and fortifying our hope with love can seem, at times, impossible. But it is in the times of the greatest duress where we might find the greatest wells of hope and the most permeating sources of love.
Marginalized communities in this country have always survived and persisted through the most unthinkable atrocities, and we will continue surviving the impossible.
The powers that be, as the inventors of our trauma, will always stand in direct opposition to our healing. The system does not want us healed. The system does not want us loving. The system does not want us whole. For if we are healed, whole and loving, we check out of the program. We see the status quo for what it is, and in this seeing, we realize that the system must not be saved or reformed, so much as completely remade in its entirety, and we innovate.
We don’t even have the words yet to describe the future we are being called into creating. But as we watch these political systems fail us, these cultural institutions leave us behind, these economic structures tumble, let us remember that they were designed to do so, time and time again. Make no mistake: It is important to survive the best we can within the structures that are already in place — but that survival should not obscure our ultimate dreams of and work toward something far beyond anything we’ve ever known.
Any substantive change on the societal level requires that we first begin to reach within for the healing we need as individuals. We then carry this healing forth and forward to help those closest to us reach toward their healing. It is that centripetal healing force that will reach out to and resonate into the worlds around us. When you heal the ways you love those closest to you, you open yourself to heal the lineages from which you are one and apart from.
We now stand on a precipice at the end of the world as we know it. We must change the ways we eat. We must change the ways we talk. We must change the things we identify ourselves with. We must change and grow the ways we love. We must change the ways we think, do, move, act and exist.
Because, as Octavia Butler taught me and millions of others, “God is change.”
The rise of spiritual inquisitiveness and the alternative spiritual frameworks becoming less taboo in the mainstream cultural consciousness is both a coming home and a forging ahead. As we remember our spiritual antecedents, we also have the space to co-create new social contracts. And a mass-scale reconnection to the spiritual healing modalities and perspectives of our tangled ancestries will change this world and the foundations of its politics. In the face of the largest environmental crisis this world has ever seen, we are being called to do what has, for centuries, been made to seem impossible: embodying a spirituality that recognizes the planet Earth as our one source of life.
So, why not take a crack at doing it all through means many will consider impossible? Next time we meet, whether it be at the steps of the Capitol building, the corporate headquarters or our neighbor’s front lawn, rather than trying to lift up institutions too heavy to hold, let’s try to levitate ourselves far beyond all the vestiges of this falling empire.